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A conversation with Rapids Broadcasting Director Richard Fleming

Recently, I had an email exchange with Richard Fleming, Director of Broadcasting for the Colorado Rapids Soccer Club regarding some questions I had about football culture in Colorado, the story of the Rapids and football in Colorado, and about the fans of the Rapids as well. Here follows the results of that exchange.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I had the opportunity to email back-and-forth with Rapids Director of Broadcasting Richard Fleming. Most Rapids fans, indeed fans around the league, would be more familiar with Richard in his capacity as the play-by-play commentator for the broadcast team. He does quite a bit more than that, though, with his responsibility extending to the creation of Rapids programming on Altitude (the "Rapids Report"), supervising television and radio coverage, and generating and overseeing content for the Rapids website.

What Richard has the power to do, in my view, is tell the story of the Rapids. We do so here on the blog, and have been doing so faithfully for some years now, but Richard has a kind of access to the club that bloggers like us can only dream about. Thus, I thought it was appropriate to start asking him questions about how he sees that story, what its cultural context is, and where it's going.

Richard was very generous with his answers, so there will be very little commentary from me.

1) What is Colorado Rapids culture like, as opposed to other football cultures you've experienced as both a fan and an employee? I mean that both in the bigger sense of "what has Colorado shown you that’s distinct from (or similar to) other cultures you've experienced, like in England generally or London specifically?" and in the specific sense of the Club itself as in "What’s the difference between the culture of Arsenal FC, or growing up as in the fan culture of Chelsea, and being a part of the Rapids culture?"

First off, the other cultures you mention have evolved over many generations. They have, also, not had outside influences helping shape how the sport is seen, viewed and followed. Here in the USA, other popular sports helped create and shape the sporting landscape. Now, all of a sudden, this ‘outside’ sport takes hold and there’s a battle with identity. Are soccer fans in the US supposed to be like European fans, or NFL fans, or Mexican soccer fans, or baseball fans? I get a real sense of ‘how are we supposed to behave?’ from around MLS, not just Colorado. And now, not only are there the internal influences of other sports, but there is now the infiltration of the same sport, but from overseas, so fans here see how English, Spanish, German, Italian, etc club fans support their teams.

The Arsenal and Chelsea culture is different now to what it was when I was having to put my hand in my pocket and attend as a spectator, back in the 1980s. Part of the huge difference in culture is about more than just the fans. It is about how much the sport resonates within the very fabric of society, and its elevated status (or otherwise) in the mainstream media. In the Rapids’ back yard, I would compare the culture of following a Premier League club like Arsenal to a Colorado native following the Broncos. It is that constant reminder of who you are, who your team is, who the stars are, the heroes, the rivals, the storylines, the history (with all the memories handed down through the generations).

That isn’t here in Colorado – yet – because of so many factors. For one, it’s so much easier to punch through that glass ceiling if you’ve not got a load of people clad in Broncos orange sat right above you, refusing to budge or even acknowledge you.

I hear this quite a lot from those inside and outside of the USA. What is the state of the soccer culture? What is it more akin to compared to other parts of the world? Will it ever be the same as the type seen in Europe. My answer varies, because I don’t see it as straight-forward. It’s still a very young culture, and one that is a bit of a mixed bag at the moment. Whether in Spain, Brazil, China or South Africa, the soccer culture in these nations are pretty much the same at whichever stadium you’re at. That’s not the case here in the USA, as the evolution of football and that football culture is at different stages across the country. In Colorado, you can see the differences within the stadium on any given game day – from the raucous crowd that makes up C38, and does a fantastic job to generate noise – to the rather more sedate elements elsewhere. But it’s changing, and with the help of the intelligent supporters’ clubs. They have a vital role to play in educating the new fans, and the next generation of fans.

Part of the football culture in the States – and it’s a result of the general sports culture – is this need to be up and down from your seat during play. In England, you would have a few beers before the game, grab a burger/hot dog/pie/pasty en route to your seat, and there you would stay. A couple of minutes before half-time, you’d try and beat the rush to the restroom/concessions stand, and then firmly back in your seat well in time for the second half. And you would cheer, shout, clap and whinge for the entire 90 minutes. Again, that’s not the universal way at the moment. The fans ought to be very much part of the theater, at all times of the game.

Editor's Commentary:

What I think is interesting is that we often define soccer culture in the United States by what it isn't more often than we define what it is. I wanted to get both sides of that. We define so much of what we do as fans by the example set within England. But we're not England. And even within England we aren't Londoners or Mancs or Liverpudlians; we're Coloradans. How is it Coloradans support football? What is unique to us?

This has, as it turns out, been a very difficult question to answer.

2) Sports journalism is still journalism, but it’s also a species of storytelling. As a storyteller, with sport as your medium, you’re constantly looking at the hard data of games, interviews and statistics to craft stories and narratives about clubs, teams and players. What would you say is the narrative of the Colorado Rapids first team from last year and this year? How do the individual stories of players, staff and fans contribute to and feed the narrative of the first team or the club as a whole? Or are they not running together at all?

Where we are at the moment, answering this before the Seattle game and after five defeats in a row, it’s clear that there have been bumps in the road. Whatever happens between now and the end of the season, though, I think we’ll look back at this as being one of transition. It’s not a word fans like, and I’m not particularly keen on it, but a new coaching staff takes time to do things their own way. The way MLS is structured makes it very difficult to apply the ‘quick fix’ approach that is evident in most other leagues, where teams can go and spend what they like on who they like. That said, the Rapids at their strongest were able to compete with most in this league. Prolonged absences and injuries have obviously blighted the recent form, but this is a club which is making strides on various fronts, though it’s the results and performance of the first team which take center stage – and rightly so.

The stats don’t make for happy reading at present, particularly when you look at the 51 points (and 5th) achieved by the team of 2013. In a results-based business, it’s all about the points column come the end of the regular season, but that’s to overlook the desire, determination and drive to recognize the weakness and get better. We all have a role to play in moving the Rapids onwards and upwards. In some shape or form we’ve all invested in the club, and all have a desire for it to grow and succeed – that’s where the individual stories come together. Fans, players and staff are all responsible for shaping the direction of this club.

3) The Colorado Rapids, according to Tim Hinchey, want to be "Colorado’s Team" as opposed to a team that only represents a particular region of Colorado like Denver, the Springs, or the People’s Republic of Boulder; how do the Rapids, according to what you’ve seen and experienced, weave those two together: the story of Colorado and football?

I don’t want to speak on behalf of Tim Hinchey, but as the only MLS team with the name of the state in their title, that allows the Rapids to reach out beyond the boundaries of Commerce City, or Denver, and it comes back to the first answer, about football culture elsewhere.

The sport of football/soccer was founded in working-class areas of England. It was a sport that the working-class could identify with, and hold as their own. Stadiums were built, and communities grew around them. They became intrinsically linked with the surrounding area. That bond grew stronger through a loyalty of the local club. There was a recognition of the importance of the fans, who were not just customers, but guardians of the club, passing down their love, loyalty and support to the next generation.

So, the Rapids must tap into what it means to be a Coloradan. What is important to them? Family, fun, being outdoors? And, because the club is acutely aware of the importance of the fans, it’s about ‘what do the fans want from the club which is representing them across North America?’ This is a meeting of minds.

As much as fans are creating their identity, then here’s a chance for the soccer-loving supporters of Colorado to help their club evolve into something which fits best for them. Again, as mentioned earlier, fan culture/football culture changes subtly through the generations. The EPL now has many similarities, but there are also subtle differences than in the 70s and 80s when the old First Division.

So, this is a rather long-winded way of stating that, as an Englishman, I’m probably not best-placed to determine the future identity of Colorado’s soccer fans and their MLS club. That power … and responsibility … lies with the good people of the Centennial State.

Editor's Commentary:

Again, the question of identity. I've brought this up several times with several different people in the Rapids organization and each time it's been a kind of mixed bag answer. I think we know that soccer in Colorado, or at least with the Rapids is made up of two, maybe three segments: 1) The hardcore supporters (C38 and the like) 2) the families 3) the casual soccer fan.

It's easier to see these groups as diametrically opposed or working cross purposes than working together to create a unified identity.

I think what I'll do next is talk to fans directly in those different segments and see what we can dig up.

I had a few follow up questions for Richard, here were his, again, generous answers.

As follow up to your second answer, I'd just ask if you, from your experience this year and last: tell us where you think the Rapids are making strides? On the field the product doesn't seem to be coming together, but off the field, perhaps? What kind of moves are the Rapids making that in your opinion are strides?

The broadcasting is exceptional for starters J

But seriously, there has been a recognition that there are so many different elements on this journey. The product on the field is just one area, and I think we all agree that it’s not where we’d like it to be. But there is also a lot that goes on behind the scenes, with staff changes, where different areas of the club have come under closer scrutiny. Ticketing (increased season tickets), sponsorship, broadcasting, the gameday experience are all further on than they were a year ago.

Speaking purely from a broadcasting stand-point … I’m never satisfied. I worked 16 years at the BBC, where the demand for excellence was drummed into you on a daily basis. You strove to achieve the best, because you were surrounded by the best. To date, of the 13 road games the Rapids have played, MLS Live has taken 8 of our calls, rather than the home in-stadium call. To me, that suggests MLS deems we’re doing a decent job. That wasn’t the case in the past.

You also mentioned this as being a time of "transition." What are the Rapids transitioning from, and what are they transitioning to? In your opinion, given what you've seen, how do you guess the Rapids will look come 2015? 2016? Beyond?

Any time a new coach comes in there is a settling-in period. Pablo is not just a new coach, but a first-year head coach. Don’t underestimate the massive leap he’s made, but also know that those who have been around him feed off his energy, drive, determination and enthusiasm. He is learning, and will take those lessons into next season.

I see a very different Rapids in 2015, as the coaching staff will have seen what’s needed, what’s not and will have a full off-season to remedy some of the 2014 issues.

From a club position, again it’s not where it wants to be, but all the different pieces of the track are being put in place so that real progress can be made. That takes time to build.

Editor's Commentary:

"Transition" "Learning Period" "First Year Coach". You're probably starting to see a theme here. I wonder, what was the expectation for Mastroeni when he was brought in to the first team, and what is it that he is learning? Those are questions that I certainly want to put to the man himself and the man in charge of soccer operations, Paul Bravo.

I also wanted to ask about the fans in Colorado, or the sports-consuming public. Bronco crazy though they may be, what is it that Rapids fans specifically seem to be hungry for in terms of the media coming from the Rapids? What kinds of stories do you get requests for, or what kinds of coverage seem to be getting the most response? From what you've seen, what's the general feel of what the Colorado soccer fan wants?

My sense is that the fans want to know everything and anything. They’re fans, and therefore want to feel a strong, consistent connection with their club. We need to get better at telling our story, whether that be on the website, via Rapids Report or being more creative so as to alert the local media. Player movement, quirky features, getting to know the players more, injury updates, team news, innovative video, analysis with players/coaches, a webcast over a podcast, live streaming of Reserves’ games/training. We have the best access to the players and coaches, and need to step up our game to bring them even closer to the fans. Plans are in place for major improvement.

We know what we want to do and we know where we’re falling short, but always appreciate feedback. We’re not perfect, and will make mistakes, but we do want to give the fans a product that they’re proud of. I don’t want to speak for the Rapids fans, but their source for soccer stories is unlikely to be exclusively from the Colorado media., Reddit, Twitter. Soccer fans are demanding of their clubs, and rightly so. They also need to be more demanding of their media. It’s not a soccer-media market in Colorado – far from it – and so the daily battle is for TV/radio minutes, column inches on websites/in newspapers.

What I've noticed personally, is that there is so much support for the National Team in Colorado. Both the Men's and Women's team can pack out a crowd at DSG Park. Also, there's so much activity in youth soccer in Colorado. It seems like everyone is playing or consuming soccer in some way. Given all this, it's surprising that the Rapids aren't packing out crowds. Is it the Broncos culture effect, or something else?

The Rapids are battling with so much in Colorado – not just the other sports, but also the outdoors (camping, fishing, skiing, hiking, cycling). The Broncos effect, for me, is how that particular team corners the media market here in Colorado. They also corner the sponsorship and marketing market as well.

It’s tough, but the Rapids are making headway. Sometimes, these are generational changes and already we’re seeing a change to the landscape here in Colorado as the first generation of soccer players become soccer fans, and are now bringing their sons/daughters to games.

It’s also tough when the young soccer fans walk around with Barcelona jerseys, or Arsenal merchandise. These foreign leagues are in our living rooms every weekend, so the Rapids and MLS is competing with that product as well.

Bottom line is, the sports market in Denver/Colorado is saturated. It’s an active city/state, with lots to do. We have to be better at what we do, on and off the field. But, believe me, there are people within the club who are passionate about doing just that. Knowing where we are, knowing where we want to be, and working hard to try and achieve that. That’s the daily aim.